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Tamara Y. Demko: Health care of the future

Physician house calls could be making a comeback in Florida through the use of the latest innovative health-care technology, telemedicine.

Florida has a chance to drastically change the landscape of its health-care delivery system this session, generate significant cost-savings and lay the foundation for long-term sustainability by enacting telemedicine legislation. The state’s population is projected to surpass 20 million in 2016. Residents over age 65 will account for more than 24 percent of the population by 2030. With trends like that, Florida needs to create a path to health-care access for all its citizens, whether they are in rural areas, inner cities, or assisted living facilities. Telemedicine can connect these hard-to-reach patients with physicians and other health-care providers.

According to America’s Health Rankings, Florida has ranked in the bottom quintile in the last few years for key health indicators, coming in 48th for geographic disparities across counties in 2011, and 41st in disparity in health status in 2013. Telemedicine, sometimes known as telehealth, is a way to deliver health care that is not an in-person consultation and involves the exchange of medical information via electronic communications.

Telemedicine can address gaps in quality health care while generating significant savings through timely health interventions and treatments that avoid more expensive emergency room or hospital care. If only 1 percent of Florida’s total hospital charges were avoided through health-care services delivered by telemedicine practice, the state could save $1 billion annually to reinvest in Florida’s other needs.

Providing telemedicine can be done during this legislative session to set Florida on a course for long-term success regardless of any uncertainty surrounding federal health-care reform. Telemedicine has been used in pediatrics, geriatrics, chronic disease maintenance and emergency treatment. Nationally, most hospitals use some form of telemedicine. In Florida, telemedicine primarily exists in uncoordinated pockets of the state, paid for by several reputable health-care facilities that have invested in telemedicine services on their own. Florida has no requirement that either Medicaid or private payers cover telemedicine services. While Medicare and Medicaid reimburse for telemedicine services equivalent to in-person services, funding is limited and conditional. Most Florida health entities bear the full burdens and benefits of offering telemedicine services.

The time to act on telemedicine is now. Momentum in favor of telemedicine has been steadily building as business organizations, health organizations and other thought leaders convened in a new Florida TeleHealth Workgroup to discuss telemedicine needs, practice, and policy. Telemedicine will create jobs in the telecommunications and health sectors, make it easier for older health-care practitioners to keep working, and make Florida a worldwide virtual health-care hub.

Policymakers should act this session to remove barriers to the use of telemedicine statewide and lay a solid policy-based foundation for statewide expansion of telemedicine as a critical step toward long-term sustainability for the health of the state, its people and its budget. The cost of not doing so is simply too high.

Tamara Y. Demko is Director of the TaxWatch Center for Health and Aging. Column courtesy of Context Florida.


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